'Observer': Olmert rejected Hamas back channel

UK paper quotes peace activist Baskin as saying group's attempt involved member of PM's family.

olmert gaza press conference 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
olmert gaza press conference 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Hamas made an attempt to forge a secret communications channel with Israel in the period leading up to Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, at one point involving a member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's family in transferring a message to the premier, according to a report in the British weekly The Observer Sunday. The report makes the assertion that Hamas's effort to establish "a direct line of communication" with Israel "fundamentally alters the narrative of the build up to the war in Gaza" and quotes veteran peace activist Gershon Baskin as saying that he was "at the center" of the failed attempt. The paper did not divulge the identity of the member of Olmert's family and the role that person played in conveying messages to the prime minister, saying only that it was aware of the family member's identity. According to the report, Baskin was in contact with several senior Hamas members, as well as with Israel officials and the prime minister himself, through his contact in Olmert's family. The report stated that over two years after the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in a cross-border raid, Hamas expressed readiness to directly discuss the kidnapping with Israel, as well as the conditions for a renewed truce. Baskin, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, told The Observer that Israel's failure to capitalize on the opportunity presented to it by Hamas was one of the reasons behind the outbreak of the war in Gaza. "Three times since Schalit's kidnapping there has been the suggestion of opening a back channel through me. The first time that Hamas suggested to me opening a secret back channel was not long after Schalit's kidnapping," Baskin told the paper, stating that Olmert's office had rejected out of hand any negotiations with terrorists. Baskin claimed to have had contacts on both sides; on the one hand, a senior Hamas figure he had met in Europe, and on the other, Olmert's family member, who was serving as a "messenger." According to the report, although Olmert's office generally turned away Baskin's efforts, the contact did eventually lead to Israel receiving a letter from Schalit to his father, Noam. The contact, however, had not lasted long when it was hurriedly closed, the report claimed, after the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) found out that Hamas members were discussing the identity of the member of Olmert's family who was ferrying messages from the organization. Baskin was quoted by the paper as saying that a year after the initial contact had been made, he received Israeli approval to pursue the contacts while coordinating his efforts to secure a prisoner exchange with Ofer Dekel, the prime minister's point man on the Schalit issue. The report did not account for the discrepancies in the time frame provided by Baskin. Although the paper reported that the first contact with Hamas came "over two years after" Schalit's kidnapping in June 2006, which would place it in the second half of 2008, it went on to say that contacts were resumed a year later. Baskin said that he pursued the renewed channel despite Hamas's emerging insistence on linking Schalit's release to a larger cease-fire deal and a lifting of the blockade of the Gaza Strip. When the attempts proved unsuccessful and he was left out of the Israeli efforts to free Schalit, Baskin continued, he made a final attempt to convey a message to Olmert through his family member. Baskin was rebuffed and told "to find another messenger," he said, adding that by that point it was too late since "war had already been decided on."